Review: English National Ballet in The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum

Performance: 8 - 30 Dec 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 12 December 2011

English National Ballet's Daria Klimentová and Vadim Muntagirov in 'The Nutcracker'. Photo: Annabel Moeller

Reviewed: 8 December

Wayne Eagling’s tribulations in rushing to finish his choreography for The Nutcracker are well documented in the final episode of Agony and Ecstasy, the mini-series about English National Ballet that aired regularly on BBC4 throughout 2011. A year on and, surprisingly, it still seems a little rough around the edges, which is a shame because the concept for this production (developed jointly by Eagling and Toer van Schayk) could be an interesting take on this well-worn fairy tale. Instead of taking place in some faraway sweet realm, Eagling’s second act is all inside Clara’s dreams, as the characters of her household become dancers on the stage of the puppet theatre downstairs. Substitute Dorothy for Clara, Oz for the kingdom of the sweets, Scarecrow for Nutcracker doll and the Wicked Witch for the Mouse King and the similarities with The Wizard of Oz are clear. There is even a hot-air balloon for good measure.

Although it is oxymoronic to try to make sense out a fairy tale, I’m nonetheless confused by the narrative of Eagling’s production. The traditional tale concerns a mysterious Doctor whose nephew has been imprisoned within a nutcracker doll (by the Queen of the Mice). The spell can only be broken by a young girl loving the doll (who also has to defeat the Mouse King). Dr Drosselmeyer attends the Stahlbaum party, having decided that Clara is just the girl for the job. Although all these characters are present in Eagling’s production, it is as if we are seeing The Nutcracker II. There is no spell and the nephew and the nutcracker doll are always separate entities, danced by two different performers, although they finally fuse into one as the cavalier in the final pas de deux (where Clara has herself become the Sugar Plum Fairy). Most bizarrely, Clara’s brother, Freddie (now an adult) turns up in the Arabian dance as a manacled convict being horse-whipped by a demented sultan, while being watched by four sultry harem girls.

Traffic chaos meant that the curtain went up fifteen minutes late and the gremlins continued inside the house with stage hands occasionally being seen from the stalls. The corps de ballet was unusually eclectic both as snow flakes and in the waltz of the flowers (not helped by awful, cheap-looking costumes) and their uniformity needs to be considerably tightened. There were, however, several excellent performances amongst the soloists including a bravura cameo by Yonah Acosta iin the Russian dance, a fiery Spanish trio and a silky Mirliton danced by Ksenia Ovsyanick.

I may have been confused by the narrative and disappointed by the corps but these issues made not the slightest dent in my overall enjoyment. Nothing could detract from the triple brilliance of Peter Farmer’s opening set design, which magically evokes the festive spirit with its skaters gliding past the snow-covered Stahlbaum house; the superb rendition of Tchaikovsky’s magical score by the ENB Orchestra, conducted with usual aplomb by Gavin Sutherland and – above all else – the exquisite dancing of Daria Klimentová and Vadim Muntagirov (as Clara and the nephew, doubling as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince). This is the partnership of the moment in British ballet and it is a crying shame that they have had so little to dance in 2011.

Rarely have I seen the complete grand pas de deux danced with such effortless, eloquent and lyrical musicality, drawing out both the poetry and the strength in Tchaikovsky’s themes. In the end, it wasn’t so hard to find this Nutcracker’s missing spell because it was easily conjured up by the new magic word of ‘Klimentagirov’!

Continues at London Coliseum until 30 December www.eno.org

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